After the Event
The psychological effects of a natural disaster don't go away once the emergency has passed. Children can suffer from nightmares or other problems for up to two years after a disaster. Children are able to cope better with a traumatic event if parents, teachers and other adults support and help them with their experiences.
- Help should start as soon as possible after the event. Some children may never show distress because they don't feel upset, while others may not give evidence of being upset for several weeks or even months. Even if children do not show a change in behavior, they may still need your help.
- Parents should be on the lookout for signs that their children need some extra counseling. Watch for common child behaviors after a disaster.
--Children may be upset over the loss of a favorite toy, blanket, teddy bear or other items that adults might consider insignificant.
--They may undergo a personality change – from being quiet, obedient and caring to loud, noisy and aggressive, or from outgoing to shy and afraid.
--Have nightmares or be afraid to sleep alone or with the light off.
--Become easily upset, cry or whine.
--Lose trust in adults because the adults in their life were unable to control the disaster.
--Revert to younger behavior such as bedwetting and thumb sucking.
--Not want parents out of their sight, or refuse to go to school or daycare.
--Feel guilty that they caused the disaster by something they said or did.
Tips for Helping Children Cope After a Disaster
- Talk with your children and listen without judgment. Talk to them at their eye level. Encourage them to ask questions and describe what they're feeling. Assure them the disaster was not their fault.
- Calmly and firmly explain your situation. Tell children what you know about the disaster. As best you can, explain what will happen next.
- Let children take their time to figure things out. Don't rush them or pretend that they don't think or feel as they do. Let them know they can have their own feelings, which might be different than others.
- If you have to seek out alternatives for housing and assistance, try to keep the family together while you look and make the children a part of what you are doing. Otherwise, they might get anxious and worry that when you leave, you won't return.
- Assure fearful children that you will be there to take care of them. Do not expect them to be “brave,” or “tough” or not to cry.
- Include children in recovery activities. Give them chores that are their responsibility. This will help them feel that they are part of the recovery. Having a task will help them understand that everything will be all right.
- Resume familiar routines as quickly as possible. A regular schedule is important for children.
- Allow your children to have as much control as possible over decisions that affect them, such as choosing what outfit to wear, or what meal to have for dinner.
- Find ways to emphasize to children that you love them. Allow special privileges such as leaving the light on when they sleep for an extra period of time after the disaster.
- Restrict viewing of television, especially programs that cover the disaster.
- Encourage children to draw or paint pictures, or write a story of how they feel about their experiences.
- Use music to help relieve stress and tension.
Updated May 2013